The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 18, 2014

Penguins are wary of spunky Blue Jackets

PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby is used to the attention. It comes with the territory when you’re the best hockey player in the world.

Still, the Pittsburgh Penguins star knows the spotlight becomes more acute in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Shaded by Columbus forward Brandon Dubinsky for much of his 19 minutes of ice time in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 victory in Game 1, Crosby finished with a secondary assist on Matt Niskanen’s tying power-play goal in the second period, a minus-2 rating and the usual bumps and bruises that are part of the job description this time of year.

“I think guys go the extra stride or two to finish their hit,” the NHL’s leading scorer said Friday. “The after-the-whistle stuff, you look for it more.”

The Penguins didn’t need Crosby to be spectacular to deny Columbus the first playoff win in franchise history. That’s a good thing, because the intensity will likely ramp up in Game 2  tonight.

Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger will play after missing the last two weeks with an upper body injury. One of the few veterans who played in the team’s previous playoff trip in 2009, Umberger’s physical presence will only exacerbate the stylistic differences between the teams.

Columbus held a 47-28 advantage in hits in the opener, rattling the Penguins a bit while taking a two-goal lead early in the second period.

“In a playoff series you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to target their better players and make it uncomfortable for them,” Umberger said. “You’re going out there running around trying to kill them, but you’ve got to make it uncomfortable.”

Five things to look for as the Penguins try to squash the growing optimism in the Blue Jackets dressing room by taking a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Steady Flower: Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury might be the most scrutinized player in the entire Stanley Cup playoffs after two straight springs ended in postseason meltdowns.

He gave up three goals in the first 21 minutes on Wednesday night, scores that were largely the part of egregious breakdowns in front of him.

Fleury was lights out after the Penguins tied it, his ever-present smile a sign he has no plans on letting every bump in the road get to him. At least, not yet.

“He had to respond in that game and he did that and it’s just one game and one response from our team and from Marc,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “The question is going to be there through every game.”

Reinforcements 2.0: Umberger isn’t the only injured Blue Jacket who may return to the ice today. Forward Nick Foligno will be re-evaluated by team doctors this morning and coach Todd Richards hasn’t ruled Foligno out of Game 2 just yet.

Foligno missed Game 1 with a lower body injury but looked his usual energetic self while skating on Friday.

“I liked the way that he looked,” Richards said. “That gets you excited as a coach.”

Know your role: Pittsburgh’s four goals in Game 1 came from outside the team’s Big Four of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal. That’s a showcase of the Penguins’ depth but also the tendency for certain players to rise to the occasion. Center Brandon Sutter’s first playoff game-winner looked an awful lot like most of the 24 regular-season goals he scored in his two seasons with Pittsburgh.

“I think the one thing he has been for us, but it’s not as documented, is that when he’s scored a goal, it’s always been a big goal,” Bylsma said.

Slow starts: The Penguins know they can’t afford another slow start. So do the Blue Jackets. If Columbus can put Pittsburgh on its heels early, the Blue Jackets believe the valuable experience they earned in Game 1 will pay off.

“I’m anticipating them being better,” Richards said. “I’m anticipating them being faster, more physical. I’m anticipating Pittsburgh to be better. But I’m expecting us to be better, too. That makes for a good combination.”

Lineup shakeups: Bylsma dropped forward Beau Bennett from the top line to the third line in the middle of Game 1 and ended up making Bennett watch most of the third period while playing more defensive-minded Tyler Glass in his place while trying to protect a one-goal lead. The 22-year-old Bennett knows not to take the demotion personally.

“Honestly in the playoffs, everybody needs to leave their egos at the door,” Bennett said.

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